Monthly Archives: October 2012

Pearls from artists* # 12

Grand Falls, AZ

Grand Falls, AZ

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

People who set their sails into art tend to work very hard.  They train themselves in school; they practice and they read and they think and they talk.  But for most of them there seems to be a more or less conscious cutoff point.  It can be a point in time:  “I will work until I am twenty-one (twenty-five, thirty, or forty).”  Or a point in effort:  “I will work three hours a day (or eight or ten).” Or  a point in pleasure:  “I will work unless…” and here the “enemies of promise” harry the result.  These are personal decisions, more or less of individual will.  They depend on the scale of values according to which artists organize their lives.  Artists have a modicum of control.  Their development is open-ended.  As the pressure of their work demands more and more of them. they can stretch to meet it.  They can be open to themselves, and as brave as they can be to see who they are, what their work is teaching them.  This is never easy.  Every step forward is a clearing through a thicket of reluctance and habit and natural indolence.  And all the while they are at the mercy of events.  They may have a crippling accident, or may find themselves yanked into a lifelong responsibility such as the necessity to support themselves and their families.  Or a war may wipe out the cultural context on which they depend. Even the most fortunate have to adjust the demands of a personal obsession to the demands of daily life.

Anne Truitt, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist

Comments are welcome.

Q: How do you know when a pastel painting is finished?

"Big Wow," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Big Wow,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  During the several months that I work on a pastel painting, I search for the best, most eye-popping colors, as I build up and blend together as many as 25 to 30 layers of pigment.  I am able to complete some areas, like the background, fairly easily –  maybe with six or seven layers – but the more realistic parts take more applications because I am adding details.  Details always take time to perfect.  No matter how many pastel layers I apply, however, I never use fixatives.  It is difficult to see this in reproductions of my work, but the finished surfaces achieve a texture akin to velvet.   My technique involves blending each layer with my fingers, pushing pastel deep into the tooth of the sandpaper.  The paper holds plenty of pigment and because the pastel doesn’t flake off, there is no need for fixatives.

I consider a given painting complete when it is as good as I can make it, when adding or subtracting anything would diminish what is there.  I know my abilities and I know what each individual stick of pastel can do.  I continually try to push myself and my materials to their limits.              

Comments are welcome.

Pearls from artists* # 11

Great Salt Lake

Great Salt Lake

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists spend all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about.  It just seems to come with the territory.  But for some reason – self defense, perhaps – artists find it tempting to romanticize this lack of response, often by (heroically) picturing themselves peering deeply into the underlying nature of things long before anyone else has eyes to follow.

Romantic, but wrong.  The sobering truth is that the disinterest of others hardly ever reflects a gulf in vision.In fact there’s generally no good reason why others should care about most of any one artist’s work.  The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.  One of the basic and difficult lessons  every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential.  X-rays of famous paintings reveal that even master artists sometimes made basic mid-course corrections (or deleted really dumb mistakes) by over-painting the still wet canvas.  The point is that you learn how to make your work by making your work, and a great many pieces you make along the way will never stand out as finished  art.  The best you can do is make art you care about – and lots of it!

The rest is largely a matter of perseverance.  Of course once you’re famous, collectors and academics will circle back in droves to claim credit for spotting evidence of genius in every early piece.  But until your ship comes in, the only people who will really care about your work are those who care about you personally.  Those close to you know that making the work is essential to your well being.  They will always care about your work, if not because it is great, then because it is yours – and this is something to be genuinely thankful for.  Yet however much they love you, it still remains as true for them as for the rest of the world:  learning to make your work is not their problem.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Comments are welcome. 

Q: What are you working on now?

"Before the Epiphany,"  soft pastel on sandpaper (above right)

“Before the Epiphany,” soft pastel on sandpaper (above right)

A:  “Before the Epiphany” is resting, unsigned in my studio, until I’m ready to put finishing touches on  it.

Comments are welcome.

Pearls from artists* # 10

West 28th Street

West 28th Street

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

That art that matters to us – which moves the heart, or revives the soul,or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience – that work is received by us as a gift is received.  Even if we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the piece.  I went to see a landscape painter’s works, and that evening, walking among pine trees near my home, I could see the shapes  and colors I had not seen the day before. The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own.  The work appeals, as Joseph Conrad says, to a part of our being which is itself a gift and not an acquisition.  Our sense of harmony can hear the harmonies that Mozart heard.  We may not have the power to profess our gifts as the artist does,and yet we come to recognize, and in a sense to receive, the endowments of our being through the agency of his creation.  We feel fortunate, even redeemed.  The daily commerce of our lives – “sugar for sugar and salt for salt,” as the blues singers say – proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift revives the soul.  When we are moved by art we are grateful that the artist lived, grateful that he labored in the service of his gift.

If a work of art is the emanation of its maker’s gift and if it is received by its audience as a gift, then is it, too, a gift?  I have framed the question to imply an affirmative answer, but I doubt we can be so categorical.  Any object, any item of commerce, becomes one kind of property or another depending on how we use it.  Even if a work of art contains the spirit of the artist’s gift, it does  not follow that the work itself is a gift.  It is what we make of it.

And yet, that said, it must be added that the way we treat a thing can sometimes change its nature.  For example, religions often prohibit the sale of sacred objects, the implication being that their sanctity is lost if they are bought and sold.  A work of art seems to be a hardier breed; it can be sold in the market and still emerge a work of art.  But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it is possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a commodity.  Such, at any rate, is my position.  I do not maintain that art cannot  be bought and sold; I do maintain that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising.       

Lewis Hyde, The Gift

Comments are welcome.

Q: Do you have air filters in your work space?

Pastel dust

Pastel dust

A:  No, but I wear a surgical mask when I work, to prevent breathing the pastel dust.  Also, on my hands I use a barrier cream, called Artgard, to prevent pigment being absorbed into my skin through cuts.  I take care that my head is always higher than my hand as I work, so the dust is below my mouth and nose.  It may be hard to tell from the photo but my easel is tilted forward, allowing pastel dust to fall onto the easel and floor.  I am well aware of the toxicity of pastel and believe I take the proper precautions.  After twenty-six years working with soft pastel, so far I’ve managed to stay healthy.

Comments are welcome.

Pearls from artists* # 9

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

ART when really understood is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well.  It is not an outside, extra thing.

When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature.  He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for a better understanding.  Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, shows there are still more pages possible.

The world would stagnate without him, and the world would be beautiful with him; for he is interesting to himself and he is interesting to others.  He  does not have to be a painter or sculptor to be an artist.  He can work in any medium.  He simply has to find the gain in the work itself, not outside it.

Museums of art will not make a country an art country.  But where there is the art spirit there will be precious works to fill museums.  Better still, there will be the happiness that is in the making.  Art tends toward balance, order, judgment or relative values, the laws of growth, the economy of living – very good things for anyone to be interested in.

Robert Henri, The Art Spirit

Comments are welcome.

 

Q: Many artists can’t bear to face “a blank canvas.” How do you feel about starting a new piece?

Starting a painting

Starting a painting

A:  That’s an interesting question because I happen to be reading The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and this morning I saw this:  

You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist.  At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study.  He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the school  of architecture.  Ever see one of his paintings?  Neither have I.  Resistance beat him.  Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway:  it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.

I’ve never understood this fear of “the blank canvas” because I am always excited about beginning a new painting.  When you think about it, every professional artist can say,  “In the history of the planet no one has ever made what I am about to make!”  Once again  I am looking at something new on my easel,  even if it is only a blank 40” x 60” piece of sandpaper clipped to a slightly larger piece of foam core.  Unlike artists who are paralyzed before “a blank canvas,” I am energized by the imagined possibilities of all that empty space!  I spend up to three months on a painting so this experience of looking at a blank piece of paper on my easel happens four or five times a year at most.  Excluding travel to remote places, which is essential to my work and endlessly fascinating, the first day I get to spend blocking in a new painting is the most exhilarating part of my whole creative process.  This is art-making at its freest!  I select the pastel colors quickly, without thinking about them, first imagining them, then feeling, looking, and reacting intuitively to what I’ve done, always correcting and trying to make the painting look better.    

Comments are welcome.
 

Pearls from artists* # 8

A view from the studio

A view from the studio

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Here is a fairly sober version of what happens in the small room between the writer and the work itself. It is similar to what happens between a painter and the canvas.
First you shape the vision of what the projected work of art will be. The vision, I stress, is no marvelous thing: it is he work’s intellectual structure and aesthetic surface. It is a chip of mind, a pleasing intellectual object. It is a vision of the work, not of the world. It is a glowing thing, a blurred thing of beauty. Its structure is at once luminous and translucent; you can see the world through it. After you receive the initial charge of this imaginary object, you add to it at once several aspects, and incubate it most gingerly as it grows into itself.
Many aspects of the work are still uncertain, of course; you know that. You know that if you proceed you will change things and learn things, that the form will grow under your hands and develop new and richer lights. But that change will not alter the vision or its deep structures; it will only enrich it. You know that and you are right.
But you are wrong if you think that in the actual writing or in the actual painting, you are filling in the vision. You cannot fill in the vision. You cannot even bring the vision to light. You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed, exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.
Here is how it happens. The vision is, sub specie aeternitatis, a set of mental relationships, a coherent series of formal possibilities. In the actual rooms of time, however, it is a page or two of legal paper filled with words and questions; it is a terrible diagram, a few books’ names in a margin, an ambiguous doodle, a corner folded down in a library book. There are memos from the thinking brain to witless hope.
Nevertheless, ignoring the provisional and pathetic nature of these scraps, and bearing the vision itself in mind – having it before your sights like the very Grail – you begin to scratch out the first faint marks on the canvas, on the page. You begin the work proper. Now you have gone and done it. Now the thing is no longer a vision: it is paper.
Words lad to other words and down the garden path. You adjust the paints’ values and hues not to the world, not to the vision, but to the rest of the paint. The materials are stubborn and rigid; push is always coming to shove. You can fly – you can fly higher than you thought possible – but you can never get off the page. After every passage another passage follows, more sentences, more everything on drearily down. Time and materials hound the work; the vision recedes ever farther into the dim realms.
And so you continue the work, and finish it. Probably by now you have been forced to toss the most essential part of the vision. But this is a concern for mere nostalgia now: for before your eyes, and stealing your heart, is this fighting and frail finished product, entirely opaque. You can see nothing through it. It is only itself, a series of well-known passages, some colored paint. Its relationship to the vision that impelled it is the relationship between any energy and any work, anything unchanging to anything temporal.
The work is not the vision itself, certainly. It is not the vision filled in, as if it had been a coloring book. It is not the vision reproduced in time; that were impossible. It is rather a simulacrum and a replacement. It is a golem. You try – you try every time – to reproduce the vision, to let your light so shine before men. But you can only come along with your bushel and hide it.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Comments are welcome.